For years there has been buzz about a giant iPad. An iPad that could take on the Surface tablet (which loves to point out how it beats the Macbook Air in side-by-side commercials). An iPad that would finally be as much about content creation as it is about content consumption. An iPad to rule them all. In September those rumors proved true, when Apple announced the iPad Pro. A gigantic iPad with a screen size of nearly 13 inches. With increased processing power, and all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a $1000 laptop (with similar price tag). For months the only people who could tell us anything were people in the tech review industry (i.e. tech geeks) and Apple itself (um…conflict of interest). But last week I finally got my hands on one. I’ve had it for about 5 days, and these are my first impressions.
It’s an iPad
Let’s get this out of the way first thing. Yes, it’s a huge iPad. It looks like some mad scientist zapped the old iPad with some type of engorgement ray. Partnered with the classic “smart cover” the device looks pretty ridiculous at first glance. It’s just a big iPad. What good is that? I asked myself that question immediately after getting it into my hands. Sure, it’s a very nice iPad. It’s modeled after the current line of iPad Air 2. That means it’s super thin, very light, and has nice features like touch ID and improved cameras. While some apps have already been optimized for the larger screen, the vast majority of applications are just larger versions of their iPad Air counterparts. I’m reminded of the time when the first iPad came out and all of its apps were just iPhone apps blown up. Things are much better here, going from “little iPad” to “big iPad” but the comparison is worth noting. And just like what happened back then, the apps for iPad Pro will soon take on a life of their own, as developers start taking advantage of that massive 12.7 inch screen; not to mention taking advantage of the multitasking feature (also available on iPad Air 2) and the new Apple Pencil (a stylus). Right now this is a big iPad, but it won’t be that for long.
It’s a Laptop
It took a couple of days to convince me of that statement. At first I didn’t see it. I’ve paired my iPad Air 2 with a bluetooth keyboard before. Heck, I’ve paired my iPad Mini with the slick Bluetooth keyboard from NewTrent, and got to pretend like I had the world’s tiniest macbook. But the iPad Pro is a different matter altogether. Unlike these previous hybrids, the iPad Pro is not pretending to be anything more than what it actually is. It’s a laptop (with a couple caveats of course). So what makes a big iPad a laptop? Let’s break it down.
Screen Size/Resolution – The first feature that easily distinguishes a laptop from a tablet PC is screen size. For comparison let’s talk smartphones. When you cross 5.5 inches in screen size, the industry stops calling it a phone, and starts calling it a “phablet”, which is a hybrid of the terms “phone” and “tablet”. Once you hit 7 inches in screen real estate the term “tablet” seems to be universal. Usually the “phone” element disappears at this screen size too. That term sticks around all the way through the current “full size tablets” like iPad Air 2, Nexus 9, and Microsoft Surface Pro 4. But tablets are getting even bigger. They are becoming laptops. Please God, don’t let their ever be a “laptab” or a “tabtop”. Most entry level laptops start at 11inches (examples). So at almost 13 inches corner to corner, the iPad has the right screen size. It should be noted that the screen resolution of the iPad Pro is on par with the Macbook Air, so check that box off as well.
Keyboard – This one is huge. Laptops have always had keyboards. Sure, many hybrid laptops these days have detachable screens, but the key function of the computer is found in its keyboard. It’s how you do everything. It’s how I’m typing this post right now (on the iPad Pro!). Email, web browsing, writing school papers, and the like. All require a good keyboard. And bluetooth keyboards are more often than not, pretty crappy. I’ve had a couple of decent ones, but even those I always know I’m going to deal with disconnection issues and battery life. For a tablet to become a laptop you need a keyboard that is literally part of the overall machine (no bluetooth, no battery charging). And Apple has done it with the iPad Pro. They introduced the new “Smart Keyboard” ($169) which connects to the iPad Pro using a new “Smart Connector” which are circles on the side of the iPad Pro that connect to 3 beads of metal on the keyboard case. I’m currently using the Logitech Create Keyboard ($150), which protects the iPad all around (the Smart Keyboard only covers the front). It’s adds twice the weight and three times the thickness, but it also makes the iPad Pro feel like a laptop (and is still the lightest laptop I’ve ever had). Finally, the keyboard must have keys that CLICK. Some might argue with me here, and perhaps the next generation will be more comfortable typing on flat surfaces, but I still need the response of the click. The feel of the button vastly improves my typing rate and minimizes my spelling errors.
Processor – Quick note, cause I know this one is super geeky. For a tablet to be a laptop, it needs to be able to work just as hard in terms of processing power. The processor is crucial to everything from how fast your applications run, how effective multitasking will be, even simply how responsive all those cool games will be. The iPad Pro has a processor on par with the Macbook Air, so again, no silver medal for the tablet this round.
It’s still missing some stuff
So I’ve made my arguments for why i consider the iPad Pro a laptop. I’d be a fool to refuse to face the gaps that are clearly there. So here is what the iPad Pro is still missing. First off, it is missing a MOUSE or TRACKPAD. Those are bold for a reason. It’s essential to have another way to interact with your screen besides your finger. But what about the Apple Pencil? The stylus could replace the mouse, right? I do think that the stylus is a great tool. I wish the iPhone 6 Plus had one. The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 has an awesome stylus. But that’s an accessory, and we are talking about the iPad Pro as a laptop. The stylus is useful but not integral to the laptop model. What is integral is either a trackpad, or option to attach a mouse. And the iPad Pro offers neither option, and that is an issue. This is particularly painful when I’m trying to edit something in a Word doc (like, say, this blog post). A trackpad/mouse would make that process much easier, and would feel like a laptop. So the iPad Pro needs something, even if it’s an over-priced bluetooth enabled trackpad to pair to it. It would be better to put
it right into the case, like the Microsoft Surface has always done! The next gap is USB support. For the iPad Pro to be a laptop it must allow for peripherals. This is where the whole mouse thing could be dealt with. But this is also where you could add some extra memory options for the woefully inadequate 32GB storage in the cheapest model. Apple seems to believe that Bluetooth/WIFI connected devices are the future, and everyone wants to store their content in the Cloud. Maybe they’ll be proven right, but for now those missing USB ports (found easily on any other competitor of this size) are going to hold some people back from believing this device could ever replace the laptop. The last thing missing are optimized apps, but those will come. I wish that the device ran a hybrid of the Macbook OS (currently El Capitan) but for now we’re stuck with iOS. But 3rd party developers seem to like making money, so I’m sure they’ll save the day sooner rather than later.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
I wanted to hate the iPad Pro. I wanted to say it’s just a big iPad. That it isn’t going to replace the laptop. But I was wrong on most of those counts. I set my Macbook aside for the past 5 days and have used this iPad Pro as my laptop exclusively, and it’s proven itself to me. I am certain that this device is just the first step towards a whole new kind of laptop. Microsoft has had the “tablet/laptop hybrid” market more or less to themselves with the Surface line of tablets. They have had a blast mocking how versatile the Surface Pro is compared to the Macbook Air. And if not for the issues that plagued those devices around Windows 8, we might be saying Microsoft redefined the field. But that playing field is starting to level out. It’s not there yet. The iPad Pro has a couple gaping holes that the competition is sure to point out right away. No trackpad!!!? No USB ports!?!?! That’s just a huge iPad and not a content creation machine!! That’s what they will say. But they would be wrong. The iPad Pro is a laptop. It’s a first gen for Apple, and it’s an indicator of something new to come. There will always be tech geeks who hate how Apple claims to do “new things” when what they are doing is hardly new. (it actually annoys me too) That will be the case for the iPad Pro as well. But Apple markets their products with greater success than any other company, and they create markets where before there were only struggling sales. They did it with the MP3 Player (iPod), then the Smartphone (iPhone); they did it with the Tablet PC (iPad), and most recently with the Smartwatch (Apple Watch). All of those markets existed before Apple introduced their products. But few can argue that those markets weren’t radically changed after Apple introduced their tech. And those revolutionized markets brought opportunities for all sorts of new products, across many companies. Apple drives me crazy a lot of the time. The company just strikes me as too arrogant and full of themselves. But they make good stuff. And the iPad Pro will go down as one of their successes. That’s my bet. Though it might also be the device that killed the Macbook Air. But, in the world of mobile tech, it’s all about change. And this change appears to be a good one.
Here are a few other reviews of the iPad Pro to check out:
When I took the Nexus 9 out of the box, the first thing that struck me was the unique size. I’ve had several 7 inch tablets, and also a 10 inch iPad for many years, so when I first took this 9 inch device into my hands I was a little perplexed over the reason for such a size. It’s basically a small iPad or a large iPad Mini (to put it into the Apple terms that most would be able to relate to). The device most similar to the Nexus 9 on the market right now is the Kindle HDX 8.9 from Amazon. That particular tablet can go toe-to-toe with Nexus 9 in terms of specs, but comes in $20 cheaper. Of course, the Nexus 9 gives you a clean Android operating system, versus the highly customized Kindle software. So maybe the $20 saved isn’t worth it, if you want more than Amazon’s somewhat limited app selection.
The battle over tablets has reached a fever pitch in the past couple of years. Some signs even indicate that the devices have peaked, as sales are starting to flatten out, or even drop in some cases, in terms of year-over-year growth. Even the all-powerful iPad is not immune to this. Simply put, people who wanted tablets bought them, and now they don’t need another for at least two years, and in many cases the time is much longer. So the tech companies are now heading back to the drawing board of sorts, trying to come up with the next evolution of tablets that will bring consumers back to the table. It’s my opinion that the Nexus 9 is the first effort from Google to do just that. They haven’t done anything huge yet, but by placing the size smack-dab between the small and large tablets, they are in effect offering a middle of the road option for consumers uncertain about what tablet they might prefer. The battle for tablet consumers is only made more intense by the increasing size of smartphones. Where “phablet” was once seen as more of a joke than an actual phone people would want, now the market for the 5 inch screen on smartphones is the strongest of the lot. So as the 7 inch tablet starts being challenged by the smartphone market, and the 10 inch tablets are often seen as too high priced for many consumers, tech companies are looking for ways to offer a better tablet at a competitive price. And that brings us to the Nexus 9.
The Cup Half Full
I did not initially like the Nexus 9. I used it casually over the course of the week, and found myself longing to return to my standard iPad Mini. But then I sat down with the device for a few hours and really dug into it. I got to know the new operating system, Lollipop, and then my attitude started to change.
Lollipop does something that comes as a shock to tech followers, it finds Android copying Apple! It’s been the other way around with Apple ripping off Android for so long, it’s kind of refreshing to see the flat simplistic approach Apple employed with iOS 7 (and now iOS 8) brought into Android’s Lollipop. It’s a welcome change. The previous operating systems, Jelly Bean and Kit Kat, were often way too dark, and the buttons didn’t always make the most sense. That all changed with Lollipop.
I like many of the features, but I will focus on two of them here. First is Multi-User Access. I had the original Nexus 7, and one feature I liked about that device was the ability to set up a “guest account” so others could use my device without messing up my stuff. Lollipop is making multi-user accounts even easier. You can swipe between Google accounts easily, if you’re like me and have multiple email addresses for various reasons. But you can also create additional profiles that can have total access to your google apps, have limited access based on your settings, or have unique profiles built from the guests own google apps using their login information. It’s easy to switch between accounts, right from the notification screen, and the setup was a breeze. This is a feature missing from iPads, and it is a key advantage Android has over Apple currently.
The other setting option I like is all about the battery. Sure all mobile devices have battery settings. This is where you can see your percentage and turn on your “energy saver” (which the Nexus 9 also has). But the difference with this device is that it will calculate the estimated battery life and graph it for you, so you have a good idea how long you’ve got before you need a charge. I tested out this feature with the screen at full brightness and then at minimal brightness and I saw a four hour time difference in battery life! That’s very useful and very telling about what exactly is sucking the life out of your battery. And it isn’t your addiction to Candy Crush (probably…)
Finally, I absolutely love the speakers built into the front of the device. This is HTC hard at work moving those speakers from the bottom of tablets to the spot where they belong. The Nexus 9 cranks out the sound. It’s not quite as good as the speakers you’ll find on the Kindle Fire line, but it’s better than anything Apple is doing these days.
The Cup Half Empty
Google tries to sell the Nexus 9 as a “one-hand tablet” but I didn’t find that to be the case for me. It’s simply too wide. It suffers from the same issue as the iPad Mini. You can’t one-hand the device. To be fair, the rubber back of the Nexus makes one-hand holding a little easier than the metal-backed iPad Mini, but it’s still awkward and risky, unless you’ve secured it in a solid case. Beyond the size of the case, the build quality of the Nexus 9 just doesn’t seem on par with other $400-$500 tablets. It feels more like a $200-$300 tablet. By feel, I am referring to the cheap rubber back, and the cheap glass. You’ll find the oils in your fingers will smudge both sides of the tablet very quickly. I did side-by-side testing with an iPad to see how quickly fingerprints appeared, and the Nexus was immediately evident with a couple taps on the screen. The iPad put up a better fight, and that is because of the quality of the glass, and the way the glass screen is attached to the device (iPad glass is glued to the surface of the screen versus laying on the screen like the Nexus 9). In addition the volume and power buttons are loose and, again, feel cheap. Google contracted HTC to build the Nexus 9 and the only evidence of that are the metal edges, which show just a shadow of the beautiful HTC One smartphone line. I wonder what the Nexus 9 would have looked like if Google had allowed HTC to bring that design to the larger form.
While I really like Lollipop, there is one element that frustrated me, and that is the multitasking pane. When you click the multitask button (right hand button), you get a tiled view of all your open applications. It’s similar to Safari’s Multi-Web page view, for those familiar with the design. You can scroll through your various apps and move between them easily, but when you swipe them away you must do this smoothly or the app will bounce to the side and stay in place. I found that the multi-task pane filled up with lots of apps quickly, and it was a chore to clean up those apps running in the background (which is definitely a good habit to save on battery life).
The last issue I have with the Nexus 9 is the price. The 16GB model starts at $399 and that is simply too much for this device. Since the device doesn’t offer expandable memory, you’re probably best served with the 32GB for $479, which is the largest you can get (no 64GB at this time, unlike many other high-end tablets). The general consensus among reviewers is that the Nexus 9 is a great $299 tablet, and I would agree with that conclusion. With a better build, the device’s software certainly justifies the cost, but the Nexus 9 isn’t there. Remember that Lollipop is very new, so while it is currently only available on a few select devices, given a little more time you will be able to experience this operating system on many other smartphones and tablets.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
The Nexus 9 ended up being a much better device than I thought it was going to be. While the device looks and feels very mid-level for a tablet, what is under the hood is actually very impressive. Lollipop is a huge step forward for Android; It is an operating system that feels much more consumer focused than previous versions. I am certain that consumers who are less comfortable with this type of technology will feel fine on the Nexus 9. But should they get it? Is it worth the $400 price tag when you can get an iPad Mini with similar specs for $100 less. Or an iPad Air with superior specs for $100 more? I would say to steer clear of the Nexus 9 at this point, unless you really enjoy the Android operating system. There are certainly plenty of people out there who love Android the way others love Apple. And for them the Nexus 9 is a good choice. It’s the best tablet yet of the Nexus Line. It offers amazing speakers and a size that makes it more useful than the typical 7 inch tablet.
The Nexus 9 is the first entry in what I think is the next evolution of tablets. People are used to their 7 inch tablets and 10 inch tablets, and they don’t need new ones. Well, the tech industry won’t stand for that! They need to get everyone excited again! The Nexus is a new size (well Kindle did do it first, I guess) and it indicates a trend to the tablet line that is looking for a way to differentiate themselves from the giant smartphones (iPhone 6 Plus, Samsung Note 4). I’m excited to see what is coming in the next year. New tablets and smartphones will continue to change the landscape and hopefully the casual consumers who bought iPads by the truck load will reap the benefits.
I have never been impressed with what Microsoft has done with tablets. Their first attempt to battle the dominate iPad was the Surface, and it was not successful. While tech bloggers offered decent praise for the hardware at least, the tablet was not well received by the masses. Since those days Microsoft has changed their tactics in regards to their premium line, and the Surface Pro 3, clearly is up against the MacBook Air. Now it’s laptop versus laptop, and the battle is truly on it’s way to being balanced. My few interactions with the Surface Pro 3 have caused me to question my long-held stance that Windows 8 is awful. So when MicroCenter sent me an invite to pick up a 7 inch Windows 8 tablet for only $50, I jumped at the chance to take a look first-hand. I’ve been using the WinBook for a couple of weeks now, and these are my first impressions.
The Cup Half Full
For starters, the hardware is pretty solid. The device is sturdy, the various ports are not loose, like you sometimes find with other cheap tablets. This is good because the device offers a vast array of plug in options (most of which are “micro”). It charges via a standard microUSB. It has expandable memory via microSD card. It has a micro HDMI for video output to HD televisions. And it has a fully supported USB 2.0 port. This last one is the real kicker for a 7inch tablet. With this single port, you can attach a USB hub, and virtually replace your old desktop. The tablet becomes the “tower” and you attach a monitor, keyboard, and mouse, and you’re good to go! That’s a pretty cool thing, and it’s something the iPad can’t do!
Beyond the ability to add peripheral devices, the WinBook tablet is a great form factor. It feels fine in one hand if you’re reading a book (via the Kindle app, perhaps). Unlike many higher end tablets, the bezel (edges around the screen) is thick enough to allow easy handling without accidentally tapping the screen.
The “tiles” interface of Windows 8.1 is pretty slick, once you get it set up. You can use the default “active tiles” to have updates show up on the tile itself, though this will impact the battery life. I choose to turn off most of those features, though I kept the active tile on for email and twitter. Adding apps is easy, and the app store comes on the default screens. But once you go past the build quality and number of plugins, many issues begin to arise.
The Cup Half Empty
While the build of the device is great, the screen is the weak point. It is obviously cheaper glass than what you will find on high-end devices like iPad or Galaxy Tab (let alone high end smartphones)! That means one thing….fingerprints!! I’ve done side by side testing with the WinBook and an iPad Mini, and where the iPad barely registers a spot on the screen, the WinBook is covered. That shouldn’t be a deal breaker for anyone, but I’m picky about the look of my screen. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.
The next issue I hit was during the set up. I had to head to google several times to figure out how to do things like uninstall apps, stop apps running in the background (and killing my battery), and making various adjustments to settings. I was very disappointed when this happened because I hoped this would be a simple device that anyone could use right out of the box. For many, that will certainly be the case, but if you aren’t tech savvy, you might need help getting this thing up and running, and I wish that wasn’t the case.
Battery life on this tablet is pretty bad. If you work hard at application management (closing apps you aren’t using) you might get 4-5 hours out of it. The standard expectation these days is between 8-10 hours, so that’s pretty bad.
The last point I want to make about the WinBook is as much a comment on all Windows based tablets, as it is on this one device in particular.
The Problem with Windows – Tablet versus PC
My 7 inch tablet looks a lot like a Kindle Fire, or a Samsung Galaxy Tab, but it doesn’t act like one. It acts like a PC. By that I mean, it acts like the desktop computer that Microsoft used to dominate the marketplace with for decades (and continues to dominate in the corporate space). Since my purchase I have received the dreaded “Windows Updates” quite regularly. And not only are these updates annoying, but they are draining on battery and memory.
Like all PCs that run Windows, there is a section of the hard drive dedicated for “recovery”. It’s intended to provide a backup if your device crashes. Such a file seems terribly redundant in a world of cloud computing, and also the recovery file takes up nearly 6 of the 16GB of memory that the tablet comes with! This is ridiculous!
One of my major beefs with Android phones is their tendency to have “bloat-ware” installed. You know the apps that you can’t get rid of and take up space. Samsung is one of the worst for this. But compared to the WinBook, Samsung looks like a lightweight. The WinBook came with so much pre-installed stuff that only 5GB of the 16GB of memory remained for me to use. After 6-7 apps were installed, I was officially “out of space”, and needed to buy a microSD card to add memory so I could install more apps/media on the device. And here’s the kicker, the space required for “system files” will continue to get bigger as time goes by, because Windows will keep pushing updates, while not removing any of the older files (which can’t be removed manually). So if you added nothing to the device you would continue to lose memory space. This is absolutely unacceptable for a low memory tablet. I could see this being okay on a device with lots of memory, even on a Surface Pro 3, but for a low-end 16GB tablet, such software is simply a waste of space.
Microsoft needs to learn to differentiate between their tablets and their laptops/PCs, most importantly in regards to memory consumption. Apple retains a clear distinction (though that could change with a 12 inch iPad this coming Winter). The biggest issue is when a small tablet tries to impersonate a high-powered PC it will certainly fail somewhere, and I’ve had a negative user experience because of it. An experience I think most would also have if they had this device.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
The WinBook has tons of potential. It’s a solid little tablet computer. The ability to plug-in peripheral devices (even external hard drives) is a great feature, and something all tablets should start being able to do. The interface of Windows 8.1 is not as bad as I expected, and after some painful setup I’ve been cruising along.
But the cheap screen, bad battery, and memory-sucking Windows environment make this a challenging choice for the casual tech user. As Microsoft continues to struggle with how to identify their devices (as tablets or PCs) the other major players have slick user experiences. Android and Apple might be in a battle for market share, but they are not at odds in regards with how to build a strong user base. Their apps stores are cleaner, their developers are more enthusiastic (meaning more apps and a better user experience), and their tablets are just that, tablets. With good battery life, and decent memory.
So if you are a die-hard Windows person, I’d recommend checking out the Surface Pro 3, though get ready for sticker shock with its $900 price tag (and that without the extra $130 for the keyboard cover!). The Surface is a PC masquerading as a tablet, and the marketing makes it clear that is what is intended. But if Windows isn’t important, or you’re only interested in a low price tablet, I suggest sticking with the devices of Android (i.e Nexus 7) or Amazon Kindle (i.e. Kindle 6) for the time being, while Microsoft gets it act together.